Fewer parents gaining ‘first choice’ primary schools than statistics suggest

17 February 2010

Fewer parents are managing to enrol children in their true ‘first choice’ primary schools than is generally thought, says a new study.

Researchers who examined the school choices made by parents of more than 15,000 children taking part in the UK-wide Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) found that 94 per cent of families in England appeared to have won a place in their chosen school. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland the proportion was even higher (98%).

“If these high percentages are taken at face value, school choice appears to be working,” say researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London. “Of course, one explanation for these high success rates is that most parents selected a school that was likely to admit their child, which may not have been their real first choice.”

Because the MCS parents had also been asked whether they would have liked to have applied to a different school but did not the researchers were able to re-run the figures. This revealed that between 4 and 7 per cent of parents who had apparently got their first choice had actually preferred another school. “If we exclude these figures this reduces the percentage of parents with children attending their real first choice school from 94 to 88 per cent in England; from 98 to 92 per cent in Wales; from 98 to 95 per cent in Northern Ireland; and from 98 to 91 per cent in Scotland,” say Dr Kirstine Hansen and Professor Anna Vignoles.

The researchers were also able to establish which MCS parents were more likely to secure their first choice primary school. In England, mothers with at least a degree were marginally less likely to achieve their first choice (87.2%) than mothers with fewer than five higher-grade GCSEs (93.7%). “This could, of course, reflect the fact that university-educated parents are more likely to choose a higher-performing, over-subscribed school,” the researchers comment.

The MCS statistics also indicate that private schools are largely the preserve of children with better-educated mothers. In England, about one in eleven (8.7%) of the MCS children with graduate mothers attended a fee-paying school at age 5. By contrast, only 1.4 per cent of children whose mothers have no more than GCSE-level qualifications were educated privately. Significantly, a child whose mother has a degree is twice as likely to attend a fee-paying school in England, than in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland, the study suggests.

Of those surveyed in Scotland and Northern Ireland only children of professionals or managers attended a fee-paying school. In England, however, a small proportion of MCS parents from small employer and lower-level occupational backgrounds used private education. Some parents in Wales who were small employers also educated their children privately. There are some inter-country differences in enrolments in private schools that are not explained by parental occupation, the study concludes.

The findings are included in a book on the MCS’s first three surveys which is published today (February 17) by The Policy Press. Children of the 21st century (volume 2): the first five years is available from the publisher’s website http://www.policypress.co.uk

The MCS is run by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education. The cohort study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of Government departments.

Further information

David Budge
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Notes for editors

1. The first survey of the Millennium Cohort Study took place between June 2001 and January 2003. It gathered information from the parents of 18,818 babies born in the four UK countries. The second survey took place at age 3 and the third at age 5. The study’s field of inquiry covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income and poverty; and housing, neighbourhood and residential mobility. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample places with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families.

2. Hansen and Vignoles examined school applications made on behalf of 15,054 children. The breakdown of applications was as follows: England (9,699), Wales (2,134), Scotland (1,689) and Northern Ireland (1,532).

3. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London, specialising in teaching, research and consultancy in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise judged almost two-thirds of the work submitted by the IOE as internationally significant, and 35 per cent as ‘world leading’.

4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

The contract for data collection in MCS is awarded under competitive tender to specialist agencies. For three out of the four surveys undertaken to date the data collection was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), who in turn sub-contracted the interviewing in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). The agency responsible for the second round of data collection was Gfk-NOP, who sub-contracted in Northern Ireland to Millward Brown.

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